Over the weekend, provocations on two of Israel’s borders presented the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with new challenges. In the Golan Heights, what was described in reports as “erratic mortar fire” from Syrian army positions brought a sharp, though limited, response from the Israel Defense Forces. In the south, Hamas launched a rocket offensive aimed at Israeli civilian targets. But while the Syrian incident made headlines in the international press since it threatened to drag Israel into the Syrian civil war, it was the situation in Gaza that was the more troubling.
As troubling as the possibility that Israel could be dragged into the ongoing chaos of Syria is, the country’s Gaza dilemma is far more worrisome. Rockets continued to fall on Israel Monday as the Hamas rulers of Gaza continued their own attempt to provoke Israel into an offensive. While both Israel and neighboring Egypt have little to gain from either a repeat of the 2008 Operation Cast Lead, in which Israel knocked out terrorist positions inside Gaza, or a more far-reaching offensive, in which the Islamist terrorist group would actually be deposed, the possibility that at some point Netanyahu will have to do something to stop the rain of fire on his country is very real.
Israelis don’t know for sure whether, as some observers seem to think, the fire from Syria was an attempt by the faltering Assad regime to portray its struggle as one against Israel rather than its own people. Given that such a ploy is a tried and true standby for Arab dictators, it seems logical to think that a desperate Bashar Assad thinks involving Israel in the fighting will bolster support for his embattled government. Yet it is just as likely that the fire into the Golan was unintentional spillover from that war. Certainly it was nothing comparable to the deliberate attacks from the regime on the Turkish border, which is actually a transit and supply route for the rebels who have the support of Ankara.
While Israel has no love for Assad and would be happy to see Iran’s ally fall, it must also ponder whether his replacement by a weak rebel regime would lead to more conflict in the future. Israel is likely to do just about anything to stay out of that mess, and it will take more than a few stray mortar shells to drag it into that war.
But Netanyahu’s choices with regards to Gaza are not so easy. Though Israel’s main strategic focus in the last year has understandably been on the Iranian nuclear threat, Hamas’ ability to make the lives of Israelis living in the south a living hell is a reminder that the enemies on the Jewish state’s border can’t be ignored. Since Saturday, more than 160 rockets have fallen on the region bordering Gaza. Their motives for this offensive are complex.
The impetus for the escalation may stem in part from a desire to remind the world that the Palestinian Authority is merely one of two groups competing for control of a future Palestinian state. The surge in violence doesn’t help PA leader Mahmoud Abbas’s efforts to get the United Nations to unilaterally recognize Palestinian independence without first making peace with Israel, and that suits Hamas’s purposes.
The Hamas fire may also have a tactical purpose. Last Thursday, the Israel Defense Forces discovered a tunnel along the border with Gaza, the intent of which was obviously to facilitate a cross-border terror raid along the lines of the one that resulted in Gilad Shalit’s kidnapping as well as the murder of two other soldiers. Israel has sought to establish a 300-meter no-go zone on the Gaza side of the border in order to prevent such attacks, but Hamas uses rocket fire to defend its freedom of action.
Whether thinking tactically or strategically, Hamas continues to hold approximately one million Israelis living in the south hostage. Anti-missile defense systems like Iron Dome help limit the damage, but they can’t stop all or even most of the rockets, as the last two days showed. Hamas seems to be assuming that an Israeli counter-offensive into Gaza to silence the fire would be too bloody and too unpopular abroad to be worth it for Netanyahu. Another option would be to return to targeted killings of Hamas leaders, but that is likely to lead to more rockets fired at Israeli civilians rather than to stop the attacks.
The bottom line is that Israel has no good choices open to it with regard to Gaza. But with elections looming in January, Netanyahu can’t afford to let the people of the south sit in shelters indefinitely. If their Muslim Brotherhood friends in Egypt — who also worry about the spillover from a new war — can’t persuade Hamas to stand down soon, the prime minister may have to consider raising the ante with the Islamist terrorist movement. While the world is more interested in the violence in Syria, Gaza remains the more difficult dilemma facing the Israelis.